You’ve seen it on YouTube and Modern Family. Swarms of inconspicuous passersby break into a seemingly spontaneous dance routine in a train station or the food court of a mall. Known as a flash mob, it’s a surprise public performance à la guerrilla theater, sans the buzzkilling political message.
Flash mobs create order out of chaos. In aiming solely to bewilder—and then delight—unsuspecting onlookers, they wind up doing much more: They celebrate the exuberant and unpredictable art of performance itself.
When I learned a New York choreographer was organizing a flash mob here in Santa Barbara, I signed on. I have no dance experience, but I can rock stretch pants and tie a do-rag on my head, so I figured I could fake “hip, urban hoofer” if necessary.
There were 120 people at the first rehearsal. Within a week, the number had dropped to 65 community members of literally every shape and size. Little girls. Old men. Giggling moms. In only five hours—and with just a little bloodshed—we learned the keys to conjuring order from chaos: Frustration. Repetition. Sense of humor. Motown.
“I’m Doug, and I’m a recovering choreographer,” said our “mob” boss Doug Elkins, in town for a residency with Santa Barbara’s esteemed DANCEworks program. He started us off with fancy arm work in our Lobero Theatre seats, and soon had us up onstage adding fast footwork. Elkins knew it wouldn’t be easy: “If it gets confounding or frustrating” (it did), “just go with your favorite curse” (we did).
When we finally mastered a simple eight-count, we cheered and applauded like children.
“You guys are adorable,” Elkins chuckled, comparing us to proud, prize-winning poodles at a dog show.
Every damn time I perfected a sequence and glanced smugly around the room at my struggling fellow dancers—I lost it. My brain and body went simultaneously, humiliatingly, slack, and I confessed to my partner, “Yeah, it’s gone. Sorry. I got nothin’.”
When does “muscle memory” kick in? we kept asking. And can we come back then?
Elkins said encouraging things like, “No big deal. Fail. Fail again. Fail worse … then fail better.” And frustrating things like: “Okay, we’re almost done! … And then we’re gonna add a little something else.”
When I practiced at home, my son laughed at me—until I taught him the world’s rippin’est street-dance handshake. My friends and I got a thread going on Facebook to review the moves, giving them names like “Goal Posts,” “Melting Prayer,” and “Zombie Flip.”
At rehearsals, I laughed. I sweated. And when my partner sliced open my hand with her fingernail—twice—I bled. Once, a group of us got locked in a downstairs rehearsal room and were left wandering around below the stage like nomads from This Is Spinal Tap.
When we resumed our places onstage and finally put all the steps together, my mind raced: Why is the music so fast? Am I doing this? Oh-my-god-I’m-doing-it. No—don’t think about it. Don’t look down. This is muscle memory in action! I. Am. Dancing.
We grinned as we danced, stomping and slapping and sliding in tandem, a fresh and unlikely army of guerrilla entertainers. Afterward, we were giddy: high-fiving, freestyle boogying, and leaping off the stage, exhilarated in a way you can’t duplicate without a prescription.
They implored me not to tell you when and where our flash mob is going to alight, since catching the audience off-guard is half the show’s magic. (Otherwise, despite our immense pride at learning the thing, we’re really just a gaggle of locals dancing not especially well.)
But if you’re out this weekend, look for us in a very public place. I’ll be the one in the do-rag.